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What means convergence?

[This is from a posting I made originally on Advogato Aug 18, 2003.]

Have a picture of your mother in the shower? Want one?
What means convergence?
There has been a lot of talk about 'convergence', but I think that it has been short of the mark for the most part. Convergence is something that has driven my company for more than five years now. The world has been slow to converge, but the infrastructure is slowly gaining momentum. Convergence as I describe it here will happen and it has important consequences for us all.
First, let me explain what convergence means to me.
Once upon a time, information flowed from word of mouth down through the generations. With the discovery of writing, this information could be kept in a more accurate form. With the invention of the printing press, this information could be widely disseminated to a large audience. Over the years, technology has allowed information to flow ever more quickly to ever wider audiences through the advent of newspapers, magazines, telephones, radio, television and finally networks, the Internet and the web. While these technologies matured, business models emerged to pay for them. Control of these various media outlets was gathered into the hands of a few entities and was sanctioned separately by governments.
Historically, all of the various different types of media have been considered separately and controlled separately. Visual communication via printing on paper, and electromagnetic telecommunications are largely incommensurate. As computing devices and telecommunications matured, it became technologically possible to merge most communications into one network. Vested interests in phone companies, cable companies, television and radio have fought tooth and claw to keep their government sanctioned (usually via licenses) control over their piece of the pie. Telecomm and Cable companies in particular have tried very hard to leverage themselves into becoming the pipe through which everything arrives. With the wide acceptance of the open standard TCP/IP and the development of the World Wide Web and its many open standard protocols, it is rapidly becoming physically and politically possible to merge (converge) some of these formerly independent communications media. This is being done. Voice over IP -- using the Internet to transmit phone calls is an example of this convergence.
I think that the majority of players in the know in phone, cable, radio and television realize that convergence will become a reality. The electromagnetic spectrum currently doled out in licenses to particular companies for radio, television and telecomm will eventually be 're-purposed' to the carrying of TCP/IP traffic. At least a variant of Ethernet/TCP/IP will be the lingua franca of communications. Tag language interchange of data at the application level will rule the day.
One thing that gets lost in the noise that is particularly important to us all both socially and politically is the convergence of electric power and the network. Two things prompted this article. One was the power outage experienced by the northeastern U.S. and Canada and a news story about a camera Sony will be releasing in October of this year. The camera will use the IEEE802.3af Ethernet standard to draw its power from the network.
What means convergence?
I can't say precisely when it will become dominant, but the following convergence is already happening: All communications and part of the power grid are becoming a single transparent worldwide network. Communications devices and their power requirements are shrinking. It is technically possible, for instance to produce a camera with a 360x360 degree viewing range that is connected to the Internet and near invisible to the eye. When mass-produced, these devices would cost pennies or less per device. Privacy as we know it will become almost impossible within my lifetime. Webcams? They will be everywhere. Light bulbs will be monitored via the Internet because it will be cheaper to produce them with the device than without. Take a look at the text on an Orville Redenbacher's popcorn bag sometime and if you understand what they are saying, you will agree with me.
Convergence and the Free Software Community What has all this to do with free software folks? Plenty. First, as members of the community at large, we all have a stake in this. Second, as the only cohesive group that can understand this stuff as a group, we have some duty to join the fray to ensure that privacy and freedom are balanced appropriately. Third, we have a particular vested interest in ensuring that the commons -- both the highway and the traffic -- are not misappropriated.
A Byzantine tangle of laws and corporate ownership already clouds the issues. As I write this, lobbyists everywhere are working very hard to add to that Gordian Knot binding what I believe properly belongs to the commons. The passion and intelligence of the free software community should be (actually is if you look at GNU and EFF closely) brought to bear to cut through the nonsense and vested interests to ensure that serving the public good becomes as inevitable as convergence itself.
How this affects one company
We (my company and some of its partners) have accepted the reality of convergence as described here for more than five years. We have acted upon some of the primary ramifications by working on components that we feel will be needed in the converged world.
One of our company's directions has been to do primary research into what we call 'data packaging'. This involves the creation of tools and the validation of assumptions as to the movement of data. We expect that network data will require the following:
Security -- (can be viewed only by intended recipient) Authenticity (can be authenticated as valid from a given source) Integrity (can be verified as unaltered) Reliability (can endure alteration of bits or bytes without compromising the above aspects) Privacy (can be authenticated, but not necessarily traced back to an individual or location). Parsimony (packets should be as small as possible to achieve above goals)
Protocols and standards for the above have matured during the years we have been involved in this research. However specific tools, infrastructure and wide adoption are still lagging. Our real focus has been on parsimony. We have been trying to come up with greatly improved compression since this has immediate value. We still feel this is a very promising area of research, though results to date have been disappointing.
Another one of our directions has been the development of a web business. This comes as a result of one of the subtle ramifications of convergence: The top priority of any business should be to establish and maintain a relationship with individuals. As convergence takes hold, only the relationships between individuals will ultimately matter. Everything becomes de-localized. Only human allegiance will bind clients and vendors together. Trust, in its many different meanings will become paramount. We have worked quietly to build trust within a small group of individuals and we have expanded that circle of trust slowly. As they come to realize that they can move to any vendor they want instantly, we hope they will stay with us because they trust us.
The web business also recognizes that the web is basically the on-ramp to the converged information highway. If we can be a trusted contact at the entry point, we get first dibs on any and all services that we can provide. These services will expand to include just about everything of value eventually.
I am not at liberty to say what, but my company and its partners are looking very closely at particular niches to provide services involving security and trust in the converged world.
How does this affect you?
As an individual, you will likely be living in the converged world. Get ready. Let your conscience be your guide. Anything you formerly did in private is about to become somewhat public. Think about that. Better either get real comfortable with things you do differently or start conforming to something you can defend.
Already, the Internet has a memory. It's no use trying to deny your past on the net. Somewhere there will likely be a copy of what you said or did. This can get real uncomfortable for the weasels. I like that. It is my hope that eventually we all get together to create a list of individuals hostile to the commons and deny them the services of the commons. I particularly like Advogato's trust metric research with respect to this. The weasels can say whatever they want, but who will listen? Eventually they will be known for what they are.
The current SCO assault on our community comes to mind. I think SCO will die an ugly death as a result of this. However, who will remember precisely what individuals were involved so that we can ensure they don't try again elsewhere? Eventually this type of information will be too ubiquitous to hide and the weasels will rarely get a chance to do any damage. Dilbert is based on reality. These guys are almost always multiple offenders. It would be a treat to have their record accumulate publicly.
Speaking of public life -- get used to globalization. It is a big follow-on from convergence. I expect that the global economy will eventually transition to a single currency. Already money and political power are linked and political boundaries are fading. Countries once had near absolute sovereignty over their borders. International agreements have changed that. Expect this process to accelerate. Geeks such as myself have already felt the pinch as our jobs quietly move overseas.
Finally, getting back to the network memory -- I really like the idea that records will accumulate. However, it comes with consequences. None of us is without sin. It is most important that people in our community (geeks who understand this stuff) work diligently to ensure that our transition to the converged, border-less, information rich world is sane and humane.


Additional text added in reply to comments:

I apologize that the article was so broad and general. Time, you know.
When I said "Let your conscience be your guide" I was referring to the fact that the new converged world will strip you of privacy. You should be sure that whatever you do is something you personally feel comfortable defending if it becomes public. That is because physical privacy of your image and words will become difficult or impossible. Chances of behavior becoming public will likely be inversely proportional to its novelty, proportional to the status of the individual, inversely proportional to the social distance between yourself and an observer, etc, etc. The tag line about your mother and the shower is an old joke that is about to become literal reality. I have seen hardly a mention anywhere of this obvious, inevitable outcome of coming technology. I don't have anything to hide, but even I am squeamish about being watched in the bathroom ... it's creepy.
Re: The public good -- what is it? What maximizes it? Somebody will be answering these questions and if they are the only voice heard, that's what we'll get. Frankly, the extension of copyrights, DMCA, the notion of 'Intellectual Property' (as if you could make such a bag and stuff Patents, Copyright, etc into it), FrankenFoods, etc. all act AGAINST the public good in my opinion. However, my opinion was never really heard. The above odius things have been legislated as in the public good thus far. In the converged world where it is feasible for the government to track your every breath, they likely will unless we insist on something else.
Re: Convergence not as wide ranging as suggested. I emphatically disagree. The networks will inevitably converge and they will be attached to just about everything. Guns and Bullets? The really dangerous stuff is probably already part of a network somehow and that trend will accelerate. How do guns and bullets get deployed and used? Somehow messages went out over a network and those messages resulted in the public will to deploy guns and the particular private orders that resulted in deploying and using them.
Re: You still can't transmit food and water over the internet. Ha ha ha. The internet does not carry the goods, but it sure as hell results in their delivery. Go to Amazon and order a book over the internet. The book WILL arrive at your door. I can personally send an email that would result in a bottle of water being delivered in Afghanistan of all places. Guns, bullets, food and water all go where money tells them to go and as far as I know, most money moves via networks already.
Re: Power supply is practical for IP. Yes. And the new Ethernet standard is a practical vehicle for electrical power sufficient to run devices. If a device requires tremendous amounts of current, but you can still send IP packets over the line delivering the current and a device with a TCP/IP stack has a vanishingly small cost then why not monitor and control the device via the same line?
  • Device power and device control on separate lines:
    • Power goes down -- no device to control
    • Control goes down -- device out of control
  • Device power and control on same line:
    • Device is either off or on and under control.
Which of the above makes the most sense?
What has not yet happened, but I predict will happen is that TCP/IP and a TAG language will be used to monitor and control just about everything and that just about everything capable of delivering or receiving information will be network attached. Why? Because ultimately it will be the cheapest way to build things. Replace every control and monitoring device on everything with a TCP/IP device that costs pennies or less.
The world becomes very strange once wireless network attached cameras cost less than a dollar and everything it sees can be controlled remotely by a browser.


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